An Empanada Carny Roadshow: Meet The People Behind Viva Empanada

Travis: I don’t know, we’re a couple of stoners and our parents died around the same time recently so we bonded over that.
Chivonn: We both understand each other and we’re very similar but different in good ways. We’re both kind of OCD about stuff and we have that drive and determination to do whatever it takes to get the job done and now that we’re working for ourselves, it makes it even better. We’re doing things that are not out of our comfort zone. It’s not like we’re doing things we’ve never done before. The only difference is we’re putting all of our own money in. That means we’re even more aware and conscious of cost—thought we were tight before, forget about it!

Brion: [to Travis] What about your background?
Travis: I started cooking when I was 14 at Friendly’s, which was awesome. My very first day cooking, I blew up a $2,000 microwave. So the second day I came into work, I was washing dishes for the next two years. It was great though—I was a little 16 year-old dishwasher. It was the perfect life. You go to school, then do your homework, go to work, and wash some dishes on the weekend, make some extra money. That’s kinda how it started. From there, since my parents were in the military, I’ve moved throughout my life. As soon as I graduated from high school, I went out to Seattle and cooked there. Went to Portland, Oregon, went to culinary school there. Then moved to Yosemite and then everywhere—Alaska, I lived in Thailand for awhile, California—
Chivonn: Didn’t you tell me that one year you got five different W-2s?
Travis. From five different states. Yeah, I got fired a lot.
Chivonn: [Laughs]
Travis: [Smiles] Since I’ve been here, I’ve worked at The Trestle Inn….I was the opening chef there.

IMG_0800Brion: When did you come to Philly?
Travis: I’ve lived in Philly for three years. I was living in a tent in the woods in California dating this girl and she’s like, I kinda want to live in a city. I was like, alright, we could live in a city for a little while [laughs]. And so, we moved here—not the same girlfriend though.
Brion: After you took her out of the woods?!
Travis: It happens [laughs]. Was a sous chef at Talula’s. Worked at Fitler Dining Room for awhile. I was the chef de cuisine at Supper for a couple years. That small blip on the map—Society Hill Society. Bunch of random places.
Brion: That’s a lot of places just in Philly. Do you feel that you’ve changed restaurants for the same reason you’ve moved a lot?
Travis: Ahaha. Yeah. It did cause me to move a couple times. But really that was due to being a military brat and not being able to shake the itchy feet syndrome that comes with the territory. And as to why I got fired more than the average bear—I’m really stubborn, outspoken and sometime overstep my bounds. What can I say—all chefs are kinda cut from the same cloth.

A Quote 2Brion: How did you guys decide on empanadas?
Travis: Before empanadas, I started a company called XOXO Dumpling and I was making little bao, gyoza—just different types of dumplings. And it never really took off. We only did a few events. They were good. It was a lot of fun. It was tedious as shit because they’re tiny and annoying. The idea I guess kinda spawned from that when we started talking because it was like, I had already gone done that path. I knew it would work because it’s a dough pocket stuffed with whatever the hell you want and that always sells. At the beer garden we hired one of my friends as the chef there. We developed a menu and had put empanadas on it and that was consistently our best seller all summer. We were watching it work and we liked the concept. We knew that we could build something small that would work. El Vez and a few other places have empanadas(there’s also Empanada Mama; see below) but there’s no empanada specialist in this city. There’s a million pho and hoagie specialists but there’s just no empanadas.

Chivonn: The empanada craze has not hit yet. It’s something that people are familiar with—they just don’t know it. For people unfamiliar with them, Travis has come up with some clever ways to give people an association. He’ll say it’s like a hot pocket.
Do you know what a hot pocket is?
Yeah, I know what a hot pocket is?
Well, this is what a hot pocket wishes it could be.
Or, a pie dumpling or something similar to a pierogie—it’s pie dough that you can put wonderful things in and fry it.
Brion: A Hot Pocket that doesn’t suck.
Chivonn: Basically.
Brion: A Hot Pocket is the empanada three generations later when it’s wearing sweatpants and shopping at Walmart.
Travis: It’s totally the devolution of the empanada.
It’s really entertaining though too, because we do have a lot of people that make empanadas at home.
They look at me like, what’s in there.
Oh, this one’s got short ribs and blue cheese and it’s great.
And they’re like, that’s not an empanada.
[Laughing] [To those customers] You’re right, it’s totally not an empanada, but it’s fucking delicious.

courtesy of Vive Empanada.

courtesy of Viva Empanada.

Chivonn: It’s just taking an idea and making it your own. It’s taking something and putting a spin on it. The fact that we fry them instead of baking them gives them a completely different taste and flavor, and they’re fresh, they’re not sitting under a heat lamp for an hour or two—or sitting in a steam table. They’re hot and delicious.
Travis: It’s cool because the people that are going to farmers’ markets are different clientele than the bar goer or that snotty person who’s eaten at all the best restaurants. I’d say 99.9% of all our interactions with people are just really light-hearted with kind of fun, really quick banter.
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